Written by Ben Nephew
Last year at Cayuga, I ran 7:37 for 7th, which I think put me about 30 minutes behind Brian Rusiecki in 4th and 50 minutes behind Sage. That wasn’t the first time I finished behind Brian, but I’m usually not that far back, and I wasn’t all that happy with my race. I seemed to be coming down with a cold on race day, but it’s hard to tell what effect that has on your race. When we raced each other again at the IAU Trail Championship, I was only about 7 minutes behind Brian. This year, after my 5:58 at the Rock the Ridge 50, I was excited to race Cayuga while healthy. It’s hard to compare courses, and there would be more climbing on this year’s course, somewhere around 11k, but I was thinking that something around 7 hours should be possible on a good day with decent weather. With the dry course, I decided to go with my Road X 255’s that I wore at Rock the Ridge with Sole Armor inserts for some extra protection, and I was happy with the 255’s all day long.
I can’t say enough about the work Ian Golden and the race staff do in organizing this race. I’ve been to a few national and international championship races over the years, and the Cayuga Trails 50 ranks up there with the best of them. They handle everything with class, from the pre-race festivities to the details of race day itself. If Ian was organizing a trail race around a dirt parking lot, it would still be an incredible event, and I’d be there!
The race field was very deep on the men’s side, with Matt Flaherty, Chris Vargo, Michael Owen, Yassine Diboun, Brian Rusiecki, Zach Ornelas, Jordan McDougal, Tristan Williams, Iain Ridgway, Zach Ornelas, Cole Crosby, Michael Daigeaun, and several others that were certainly capable of taking it out fast. Both Matt and Michael Owen had run sub 6 at Ice Age this spring, Matt had also run 2:21 at Boston, Vargo was 3rd at the North Face championship last year and won Way Too Cool this year, Zach had run his first trail 50kish in 3:15 and is a 2:20 marathoner and USA mountain running team member, Iain was 4th last year at IAU Trail Championship in a stacked field, Michael Daigeaun runs a 2:24 marathon and trail 50k’s in the 3:20’s, Cole has run 5:47 for 50 miles, and Brian and Jordan win most of the 50 milers they run. The start was relaxed, but that ended shortly after the mile mark, when Flaherty took off and 4-5 others blasted off with him. I was content to hold off, but when we hit the first new climb on the Red Pine trail, I realized I didn’t feel as good as at RTR, where I barely felt the first few hills. I didn’t feel all that bad, but I was going to be working earlier than I was hoping to in order to stay in a decent position. I debated backing off the pace, as it was clearly quick no matter how good I felt, but I thought about the increasing temperature throughout the day and figured it might be a good idea to take advantage of the cooler weather.
I had pulled away from Yassine and a few others on the Red Pine Trail, and as we made our way over to Lucifer’s stairs, a very long set of stone steps; the three guys ahead of me took their time when they reached the stairs. We soon heard an On your LEFT, and Yassine came flying down like a ninja, karate chopping down 2-3 stairs at a time, mocking us by running down backwards with his eyes closed. At the bottom, he dismounted with a back flip with a full twist in the pike position, stuck the landing, and took off. The crowd went wild, and they all held up 10’s. Let me be clear, if you fell on these stairs, you would lose ALL your teeth, and most of your palate. They are so steep that one racer had a full-blown vertigo induced panic attack on a landing halfway down the stairs. True story.
I took the bait and passed the other runners to keep up with Yassine, and we were soon back onto runnable trails with a small pack hammering after us. The pace on the downhills seemed a bit aggressive for such a long race, so I let a few runners pass while still remaining in contact. Yassine would pull away on most downhills, and most of us would catch back up on the uphillls. I don’t think I was in the top 10 at this point. A few started to slow around 10 miles, and Yassine and I went through the 12.5 mile turn around in about 1:37-8. Clearly too fast, but everyone was doing it, and they said it would make me feel better and become popular, so it must have been OK. Since I had raced last year, I knew how this course could beat you down, and I wondered how I and others who were new to the course would tolerate the second half. At least it wasn’t as oppressively humid as last year.
Yassine and I went back and forth for the next 12.5 miles back to the start. He would pull ahead on the downhills, but I would stay close enough to make up the ground on the next uphill. We still seemed to be barely in the top 10 at this point, and we couldn’t see anyone close ahead. I was just happy to be feeling better than last year, but I was hoping to be competing for the top 4 rather than the top 10. At the same time, there were plenty of guys behind me that could end up passing me, like Brian and Iain. Yassine and I settled into a moderate pace as we approached the start, and before long, Michael Owen came floating by like the Sampson of ultrarunning, blond locks flowing with a stride that was probably a 3 to 1 ratio to my own. He did not look tired at all. There was a surprisingly large gap to Vargo and Flaherty, and Matt did not look as happy as last year. There was another large gap behind them, which Yassine and I found more encouraging the closer we got to the start.
We weren’t sure what happened, but suddenly we were in 6th and 7th place. Jordan had dropped out with a chest cold, and Michael Daigeaun had injured himself earlier on. Despite the hard start, I still felt decent climbing, and passed Yassine on the initial hill of the second half. Yet again, he flew by me on the following descent, and we were together at the bottom of Red Pine. As a parent, I try to avoid potty talk, but Yassine had to take pit stop number 4.5 at this point, and I was starting to think he had some GI issues. As he dropped it like it was hot, I put the hammer up Red Pine. Well, I’m too rationale to sprint up a 20% grade with over 20 miles left to run, but I didn’t hang around to take notes on Yassine’s off trail techniques.
It was definitely getting warm at this point, and I threw water over my head at the next aid station at 28 miles. Knowing it was Yassine behind me, I used my best Kung Fu down Lucifer’s steps, and still could not see Yassine at the bottom. I thought I was holding a good pace, even downhill, through the next few miles. Then I heard rocks rolling down the hill in back of me, and Yassine came ripping by doing the lambada (the forbidden dance, which means “strong slap” in Portuguese) like he had just started . I had actually been slowly catching Zach Ornelas, and Yassine rolled by him as if on a mountain bike. I’m sure he was getting down to low 5 minute mile pace on many of the descents.
Zach seemed to try to go with Yassine, but when we hit the steep Lick brook climb, I could tell he was struggling. This was my best chance to get by and away from Zach and make up time on Yassine, so I pushed hard up the hill. I definitely put some time on Zach and some hurt in myself, but Yassine was climbing better than he had been earlier, and he still had a comfortable lead at the top. I could see him for a while on the open sections of the course, but I wasn’t gaining much ground. At this point, my quads started to get sore, and I knew things were going to get rough if that was happening with 15 miles left to run. I was also starting to cramp a bit, and had to increase my salt intake as the temperature rose. While I had been able to avoid falling all day, I caught a root hard with my right foot at about 36 miles. I hit it so hard, the insole of my shoe curled under and I had to take my shoe off to straighten it out. That was a first.
The hard downhills were getting painful at this point. I saw Vargo leading, and wondered what happened to Michael Owen. Were the carcasses starting to pile up from the carnage of the early miles? I then wondered if I was going to be contributing to that pile. I went into damage control mode on the downhills before starting the last 12.5 miles at Buttermilk falls. The awesome aid station workers there told me I was hammering, and I figured they were talking about my quads. They were definitely hammered. Despite my fatigue, the climb back up Buttermilk was still enjoyable with all the incredible views. The sound of the falls does take your mind off the suffering, for a second or two. While I think I was maintaining a 2-3 minute gap to Yassine for a while, the descent to Lick brook was slow due to my destroyed quads, and I’m sure I lost more time here while I did the Safety Dance. I made sure to take a full dip at the river crossing at 7 miles, and was tempted to float on down the river.
I maintained the best I could for the last few miles, and made sure to check and see if Zach was coming back on me once in a while. I seemed to recover a bit the last couple miles, but the soreness in my quads was still limiting my downhill running. I ended up running a 7:29 for 5th overall, and 4th USATF. I think 10-15 minutes faster on a better day would have been possible, but I’m happy with the way I raced, despite the positive splits. Up front, Vargo held on for the win in 6:57, winning by 5 minutes after having an 11 minute lead with 7 miles left. The hard charging second place runner was Tristan Williams from New Hampshire, who passed Flaherty for second and also has more impressive facial hair. I think Matt is in denial about that. Tristan gave Matt a little taste of “Live Free or Die!” Yassine was only a few minutes behind Matt, and ten minutes in front of me. Michael Owen had stopped at 37.5 miles due to the fast early pace, and Brian had also missed a turn, the same turn that Matt and Vargo missed to give the lead to Michael at the halfway point. Zach came in two minutes behind me, followed by Cole Crosby, Chad Trumbo, Jim Mollosky, Iain, and Brian. In the top 5, we had guys from NM, NH, IN, OR, and MA. I think Tristan and I were the only non-professional runners in there. While we all thought we were racing each other, I think the reality was that we were racing the course, which ended up crushing most of us. Vargo mentioned something about how you had to think about the course the entire race, and that is one thing that made the race so interesting. I guess running through a garbage dump for 7 hours might make you think, but I’d much rather do that on the incredibly scenic Cayuga course.
The entire weekend was a great time, seeing old friends and making new ones, and I couldn’t have made the trip without Steph watching our boys. Hopefully it’ll be a family trip next year! Thanks to all the volunteers that helped with the course and during the race, the aid stations were awesome. At the campground, the hospitality of the TrailsRoc crew from Rochester was greatly appreciated, and made me miss the local NY running scene. I am absolutely positive this race will continue to grow, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other USATF championships were awarded to local races, maybe a trail marathon or 50k??